Meet the Eastern Orthodox Kenoticist Who Helped Pioneer Modern Passibilism: Cross-Centered, Trinitarian Theology

Paradox_Suffering_God_coverRecently, I’ve been reading this fantastically comprehensive treatment of divine impassibility by African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani called The Paradox of a Suffering God. The first section of the book is simply historical analysis of apatheia (the Hellenistic axiom of divine impassibility) from ancient to present times. Nnamani covers everything from Greek philosophy, where the concept originates, to how the axiom mutates by the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Considering how adamantly some folks have argued that “kenoticism” is at odds with Chalcedonian “orthodoxy”, imagine my surprise when I learned that a Russian Orthodox theologian made a significant contribution to modern passibilism.

His name is Fr. Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (Серге́й Никола́евич Булга́ков) and he lived from 1871 to 1944. According to Nnamani,

“Bulgakov understands kenosis essentially as self-giving, which he believes characterises the mutual act of love in the inner-Trinitarian life. God’s kenotic relationship to the world (in the creation and in the works of salvation) is constituted by virtue of an outflow, an extension of the inner Trinitarian selfless relation of love. Creation, which is also a divine kenotic act, like the Incarnation, is grounded in and occasioned by by the self-fulfilling kenotic act of the Trinitarian Persons and precisely in the nature of their self-sacrificial love, which is ever reaching for the other. In contrast to Hegel, he conceives the three Persons as becoming fulfilled in their mutual self-sacrificial love, so that God’s relationship to the world does not bear any sign of dependency.” [1]

Precisely countering the argument that kenoticism entails a “dependency” in God, Bulgakov teaches that the Godhead is “fulfilled” by mutual relationships of self-sacrificial love. Sound familiar?

But, it gets better! Bulgakov also sees the Cross as the center of God’s Trinitarian self-revelation. He he is in his own words:

“The Cross is God Himself in His revelation to the world, God’s power and glory… The Cross is the sacrificial essence of love, since love is sacrifice, self-surrender, self-abnegation, voluntary self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. …there is no bliss in love except in sacrificial self-surrender which is rewarded by responsive fulfillment. The Cross is the exchange of love, indeed love itself is exchange. … The Holy Trinity is the eternal Cross as the sacrificial exchange of Three, the single life born of voluntary surrender, of a threefold self-surrender, of being dissolved in the divine ocean of sacrificial love. …Love itself, God, in the eternal Cross surrenders Himself for the sake of His love. The three points in which the lines of the tri-cross end are images of the three divine self-subsistent Hypostases, and the point of their intersection is the co-inherence of the three, the Trinity in unity in sacrificial exchange.” [2]


That’s good theology!

And, apparently, according to Nnamani, this Bulgakov is kind of a big deal.

“…Bulgakov’s contribution to the interpretation of the kenotic motif, and in fact that other Russian kenoticists, is enormous. The Russian kenoticism has the value of conceiving the kenotic motif in a wider scope and also positively as a divine act of self-revelation. In this way it escapes the pitfalls of both the mediating and Hegelian kenoticisms; and by interpreting the inner-Trinitarian kenosis as a mutual self-giving, which is complete and self-fulfilling in itself, he effectively evades the weakness of Hegelian kenoticism, namely, of making God dependent on the world process. …by doing so, he leaves room for creation to remain a free act of God: and God retains His sovereignty.” [3]

I just thought some folks should know about Fr. Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, the highly influential, Eastern Orthodox, kenoticist theologian.